The European Union is considering a ban on 90 percent of the microplastics that are intentionally added to products such as paints, cosmetics and detergents, beginning in 2020.
The tiny, barely visible bits of plastic, typically less than 0.2 inches in diameter, have been showing up in oceans, fish, flying insects, the Antarctic, tap water, table salt and even human stool samples, much to the growing alarm of scientists.
If adopted, a restriction proposal submitted by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) would remove roughly 400,000 metric tons of plastic pollution over 20 years. An assessment by the organization found that intentionally added microplastics are most likely to accumulate in terrestrial environments since particles that concentrate in sewage sludge are frequently applied as fertilizer. A “much smaller” proportion of these microplastics, it said, is released into the aquatic environment.
The European Commission, which had requested the proposal as part of its plastics strategy, estimates that between 70,000 and 200,000 metric tons of microplastics enter the environment each year.
The propensity of microplastics to persist for thousands of years in the environment, where their potential for adverse effects or bioaccumulation may cause concern, is one of the key reasons the ECHA says it wants to restrict the ingredients under Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations, widely considered the world’s strictest chemicals law.
“Due to their small size, microplastics and nanoplastics—even smaller particles that are created from the further degradation of microplastics—may be readily ingested and thereby enter the food chain,” it said in a statement. “Overall, the use of microplastics in products that result in release to the environment are not adequately controlled.”
The scope of ECHA’s proposed restriction covers a range of uses in consumer and professional products in multiple sectors, including cosmetic products, detergents and maintenance products, paints and coatings, construction materials and medicinal products, along with various products used in agriculture and horticulture and in the oil and gas sectors. The agricultural sector, it added, is the biggest source of intentionally added microplastics.
Several EU member states, including Finland, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Sweden and the United Kingdom, have already introduced bans on the use of microplastics in certain types of products, including wash-off cosmetic products that use microbeads as exfoliants.
ECHA’s scientific committee will review the proposal for 15 months before delivering an opinion to the European Commission, which will have three months to prepare legislation. Another eight months could pass before use restrictions are executed, though any product bans would likely be phased in over a period of a few years to give companies time to transition production processes without severe economic impacts.
One thing the proposal doesn’t address is synthetic clothing, which can generate microplastics through the shedding of fibers. Washing polyester, acrylic and nylon textiles in industrial laundries and households can slough off as many as 700,000 microplastic particles per cycle, according to a 2016 investigation by Plymouth University.
The European Commission itself noted in a Science for Environment Policy bulletin last July that microfibers from clothes may be just as harmful to marine life than microbeads, if not more so. A follow-up may be forthcoming, however.